The Pittsburgh Kid: “You could have been another Billy Conn…”

By Norman Marcus on February 17, 2014
The Pittsburgh Kid: “You could have been another Billy Conn…”
The heavyweight champion Joe Louis had a lot of weapons and he knew how to use them.

“You need to fight Louis every minute of every round, you need someone who can take his punches and give him some back…”

Actor Rod Steiger spoke that line in the 1954 movie, “On the Waterfront.” It has become a part of our pop culture. So has our memory of Billy Conn. William David “Billy” Conn, aka the Pittsburgh Kid, was born in East Liberty, Pennsylvania, on October 8, 1917. At a very young age he already liked to hang around the boxing gyms in East Pittsburgh. He knew what he didn’t like, too. He had been to the steel mills where his father worked. Chronic lung disease was not for him. So when he was fourteen years old he quit school and began to learn the sweet science of bruising. A local trainer named Johnny Ray began to work with him.

His first pro fight at the age of sixteen was a loss to Dick Woodward in a four-round decision on June 28, 1934. Three weeks later his first win was against Johnny Lewis by a KO3.

He won the NYSAC light heavyweight championship and vacant NBA light heavyweight title with a UD15 on July 13, 1939 against Melio Bettina. The rematch with Bettina was on September 25, 1939, another UD15 for Conn. He defeated Gus Lesnevich in a title defense on November 17, 1939, again by a UD15. On June 5, 1940 he fought a rematch with Lesnevich and once more won by a UD15.

He finally scored a KO13 over top rated heavyweight contender Bob Pastor on September 6, 1940. Billy was far from a banger but the KO over Pastor convinced him that he had a chance against heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

On June 3, 1941, Conn vacated his light heavyweight title and signed for his fight with the Brown Bomber. The fight took place on June 18, 1941, at the Polo Grounds in New York City.

This was the fight that made Billy Conn a living legend. Billy was quick, he had a good left hook and a hard jab. Johnny Ray told the press before this first Louis fight, “You guys got it all wrong. You don’t box Joe Louis. You can put all the boxers you like in front of him, and he’ll find them. No, you need to fight Louis every minute of every round, you need someone who can take his punches and give him some back. That’s how you beat him.”

Conn had his work cut out for him. Joe Louis was a unique fighter. He had a powerful jab, and was an excellent short puncher. Joe could go to the body like no other heavyweight of his time. Louis had a lot of weapons and knew how to use them.

According to New York Times sports columnist Red Smith, Conn became a boxing legend because of a popular myth. Now all legends are partly true. Myths on the other hand, have no basis in truth at all. Here is Red’s take on that first fight with Louis in 1941: “One of the indestructible myths of sports tells us that Billy Conn would have won the heavyweight championship of the world in his first bout with Joe Louis if he had not recklessly abandoned his hit and run tactics, tried to slug it out with Joe… To be sure, after 12 rounds Conn did have a lead on the official scorecards – a 3 round margin on one, a 2 round edge on another and the fighters were all square at 6-6 on the 3rd… As viewed from my seat in the press row, there was no visible change in Conn’s tactics. He had been living on the brink of disaster from the opening bell, and he just got caught…” There was a good right hand to Conn’s jaw, followed by a left hook to the body. Louis hit him with two more rights to the jaw. Conn hit the canvas and was counted out by the referee. After the bout the actual scorecards were read. Smith was right, “Referee Eddie Joseph, scored it 7 rounds to Conn, 5 to Louis; Marty Monroe, judge-7 to Conn, 4 to Louis, 1 even; Bill Healy, judge-6 to Conn, 6 to Louis. The referee had one or both judges agreeing with him in every single round.”

Later Billy joked with Joe, “Why couldn’t you let me hold the title for a year or so?” Louis replied, “You had the title for 12 rounds and you couldn’t hold onto it.” Years later Conn told the New York Times, “I couldn’t knock out anybody…and I tried to knock out Joe Louis.”

The crowd that night at the Polo Grounds was 60,071. The gate netted $386,012. Joe got $154,404 and Billy $77,202. Not too shabby for 1941, when a new Cadillac sold for around $2500!

Promoter Mike Jacobs had decided to match Conn with Louis that night. Others felt that an elimination bout between Billy Conn and Lou Nova, with the winner getting the shot at Louis, would be the better way to go. But if the Conn-Nova fight turned out to be a snoozer, no one would come to see the winner of that bout fight Louis. Conn was hot at the time and Jacobs could keep Nova in the pipeline for a later fight with the champion. That way he was guaranteed two fights and two paydays for Louis and himself. Luckily for Jacobs, Nova had just scored another TKO victory over ex-champion Max Baer. So Max was out of the title picture for now. Baer had been looking for a rematch with Louis since he lost to Joe in 1935. Baer was unpredictable and Jacobs would duck the meeting until Max finally retired early in 1941. The Ring Magazine ranked Baer their number one contender in 1940, but he never got that second shot.

Of course after the first barnburner between Conn and Louis, the public now demanded a rematch. Jacobs stalled. The first fight had been too close for Jacobs liking. Meanwhile Billy fought three times in 1942, beating Henry Cooper, Jay Turner and Tony Zale all by UD. Finally Uncle Sam came to Uncle Mike’s rescue. Conn and Louis both got their draft notices. The big fight would have to wait until after the war was over.

On June 19, 1946, the two men finally met again, this time at Yankee Stadium. Conn weighed in at 195 lbs. while Louis was solid at 224 lbs. Based on the first fight, many thought Conn would pull off a win. He was still fast. He was still an excellent boxer. Billy felt he had a good chance to take a decision this time. Gene Tunney picked Louis to win in two rounds, which infuriated Conn. “Ain’t he a great one?” he said about Tunney. “He’s losing the title the first time he defends it if he don’t get that long count. He ought to mind his stocks and bonds… I wish I were going in there with Tunney. He’s got nerve poppin’ off the way he’s doing. Who did he ever lick that was in shape?” Many felt Louis had lost a step since his four years in the army. Joe cut to the chase when asked by the press what he thought of Conn’s hand and foot speed. His reply also became part of boxing legend: “He can run but he can’t hide,” said Joe. He added “I should knock Billy out in the 8th round… I’m going to get Conn as fast as I can.”

Sure enough, Conn was knocked out in round eight of a very dull fight. Billy was cautious that night and simply boxed Joe. There was little offense, little of his powerful fast jab or combinations. He didn’t want to take any chances this time and mix it up with the Brown Bomber.  He forgot what his trainer Johnny Ray had told the press before the first fight. “You don’t box Joe Louis… No, you have to fight Louis every minute of every round.” The Associated Press cynically gave Conn the 1946 “Flop of the Year Award.” Billy fought two more bouts in his career, knocking out Mike O’Dowd and Jackie Lyons in 1948, each by a TKO9.

Conn and Louis did meet one more time in the ring. It was December 10, 1948, in Chicago for a six-round exhibition. The two men took it easy on each other. It was just six rounds of easy boxing between old friends.

Billy Conn ended his career with the record of 64-11-1 with 15 KOs.

The Pittsburgh died in 1993 at a veteran’s hospital in his hometown. Pneumonia took him in his sleep. Rod Steiger had gotten that movie line wrong. There could never be another Billy Conn…

Sources: Boxing Record, Red Smith/New York Times, Andrew O’Toole/The Life of Billy Conn

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  1. double end bag 12:50pm, 02/24/2014

    Hello there, You’ve done a great job. I’ll definitely digg it and personally suggest to my friends.
    I’m confident they’ll be benefited from this website.

  2. Tex Hassler 12:50pm, 02/20/2014

    The first Conn - Louis is an all time classic. In order to beat Louis you had to be ahead on points and on your feet at the end of the 15th round. Conn waa ahead but got Ko’d by superior power. I think I could watch that fight every day and have seen the film a number of times. Billy Conn was a great fighter and he will never be forgotten. Joe Louis will also never be forgotten.

  3. Eric 02:36pm, 02/18/2014

    Sorry, but Chris Byrd didn’t make anyone quit on his stool. Vitali was WINNING easily and tore his rotator cuff. Saying Chris Byrd made Vitali quit on his stool is like saying Pat Lawlor forced Roberto Duran to quit in their first fight by boxing Duran’s ears off. And not to mention that Wlad trounced Byrd in subsequent fights. Taking nothing away from Billy Conn, who might rank in the top 10-15 all time light heavyweight greats IMO, but realistically he was little more than a big middleweight. For a 6’-6’2” and 200-210lb fighter, even one as talented as Louis, to beat someone as large and talented as either Klit brother would be a tall order. Expecting a 169-174lb Billy Conn to do so is borderline insanity. Conn and Louis might be superior fighters but more than likely the Klits are just too big. And the Klits can’t be compared to Primo Carnera, Abe Simon or Buddy Baer.  That’s like saying George Chaplin and Joe Frazier are the same because they were both about 5’11” and 205-210lbs or so.

  4. Pittsburgh bound 12:56pm, 02/18/2014

    Chris Byrd made one of the Klitschko (Vitali) brothers quit on his stool… I am sure Billy Conn would have done the same. Joe Louis knocks out either brother

  5. NYIrish 04:18am, 02/18/2014

    Good one. Very enjoyable read.

  6. Clarence George 07:57pm, 02/17/2014

    I certainly share your admiration for Dempsey, Norm.  As I’ve said many times, he was, is, and always will be the quintessential boxer.

  7. Norm Marcus 06:48pm, 02/17/2014

    Well Clarence: I guess Conn was a hero too. Kinda remember that story about Billy now that you mention it. Guess we have two tough guys here.
    But my money would be on Dempsey not Conn!
    You know I’ve met a lot of famous people over the years. Bobby Kennedy, Frank Rizzo, Gene McCarthy, Bernard Hopkins etc. but the handshake I can still remember was Jack Dempsey. Met him in his restaurant in NYC as a kid.
    Politicians come and go. So do boxers. But to me Dempsey was the real American Icon.

  8. Ted 06:09pm, 02/17/2014


  9. Clarence George 05:18pm, 02/17/2014

    That’s for damn sure, Eric.

  10. Eric 05:13pm, 02/17/2014

    You gotta admire a 72 year old man who gets involved and goes toe to toe with a thug only 1/3 of his age. Conn was spotting that criminal about a half a century. They don’t make them like they used to.

  11. Clarence George 04:32pm, 02/17/2014

    Right you are, Norm.  In fact, wasn’t it two muggers?  But look what I found:

    Good for you, Champ!

  12. Norm Marcus 04:05pm, 02/17/2014

    Clarence: that could well be but it sounds more like the famous Jack Dempsey story from the 70s. Remember, he knocked out a mugger in Time Square while closing up his restaurant at 2:00am.
    I love that story! The best short puncher in the business!

  13. Clarence George 03:13pm, 02/17/2014

    Didn’t Conn, when in his 70s, fend off a robber?  Vague recollection.

  14. Eric 01:43pm, 02/17/2014

    I thought Conn weighed 182lbs and Louis weighed in at 207lbs for their rematch. When people talk about Louis destroying the Klits, I always wonder how long a 169lb Conn would last in the ring with one of the Klitschko brothers. Conn was just one pound heavier than the modern day super middleweight limit when he nearly took the heavyweight title from Louis. Just hard to imagine Billy Conn even lasting a few rounds with either brother, but to imagine him beating Wlad or Vitali for 12 rounds? Nada.

  15. Don from Prov 01:35pm, 02/17/2014

    It’s a story we all know—but worth a re-visit when well written.
    Good job.

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